We tend to view the struggle between the Chashmonaim and the Greeks as a battle between the forces of good and evil, between light and darkness, between the sacred and the profane. We often think of the ancient Greek society as a pleasure-seeking hedonistic one that sought to extinguish the spiritual Jewish tradition. However, according to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, as explained in Rav Moshe Zvi Neria’s “Mo’adey Hare’iya”, the struggle was much deeper.
As is well known, the Greeks were not involved exclusively with materialism and hedonism, but also with spirituality and philosophy. The Greek philosophers contributed great spiritual insights to the world. Their insights were so profound that some of our sages have even studied Greek wisdom, as the Rambam wrote, referring to Aristotle and his colleagues, “Accept the truth from whoever said it”. (“Shmoneh P’rakim”)
Nonetheless, the Greeks’ approach to spirituality had serious flaws. Greek culture was divided into two components. On the one hand, the Greeks placed great value on beauty and physicality. On the other hand, they emphasized philosophy and spirituality. However, the component of beauty and physicality was completely detached from philosophy and spirituality. Greeks were expected to choose between these two seemingly contradictory approaches.
Since the Greeks accepted the supreme value of the spiritual world (Maharal, “Ner Mitzva”), they did not object to Jews’ involvement in spirituality. The Greeks’ main concern was the Jewish attempt to integrate the realms.
This set us on a collision course. The Jewish tradition, rooted in the concept of “ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים”- “and you shall be a kingdom of priests for me”, commands us to merge sovereignty and holiness. There must be an integration of our political leadership – responsible for the people’s physical needs – and the priesthood, responsible for the people’s spiritual needs.
The Greeks challenged this integration of physical and spiritual matters by focusing all their negative decrees on the mitzvot that embody this integration of heavenly and earthly concerns. They forbid Shabbat observance. One way in which Oneg Shabbat is accomplished is by bringing Kedusha into our meals. Each Shabbat meal is a holy experience, said Ha’ari Hakadosh. They forbade Brit Milah, which raises the profane to a level of holiness by marking a physical limb capable of profane acts with a holy sign. They forbade Mikvah, which raises physical attraction to a spiritual level.
Therefore, explained Rav Kook, it was specifically the Chashmonaim who had to lead the battle against the Greeks. The Chashmonaim – at the time – were spiritual Kohanim, yet at the same time, fearless fighters fighting with courage and bodily strength. Matityahu, the Kohen Gadol, was also the military leader. He had all the levels of greatness required for a High Priest.
Yosef, too, embodied the integration of spiritual and physical matters. Rashi (based on Chazal) explains that Yosef would fix his hair so as to be handsome. Yosef, as viceroy in Egypt, was thoroughly involved with management and economic issues. Yet, above all, Yosef was a spiritual, holy leader. Pharaoh, overwhelmed by this unique combination, exclaims: הנמצא כזה איש – אשר רוח אלוקים בו. “Can anyone like him be found, in whom the Spirit of G-d exists?!” The characteristics of both Yosef and of Matityahu, the Kohen Gadol, symbolize the triumph over the Greeks – the victory of the integration of the physical and the spiritual, of connecting Heaven and Earth.
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth is the Executive Director of Beit Hillel and the Rav of Congregation Ohel Ari in Ra’anana. He served as Director of the Overseas Department of Tzohar and as the Rabbi of Bnei Akiva of North America. He also served as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and is a former captain in the Israeli Navy Special Forces.
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